A Response to Taipei Times’ Improving Native Language Policy

On February 16, 2024, the Taipei Times published an opinion piece by Ng Siu-lin, deputy director of the Northern Taiwan Society.

In the article, Huang applauds the passing of the National Languages Act, specifically commending its promotion of national language courses from primary through upper secondary school.

At the same time, the author raises attention to several issues, namely the teacher shortage, lack of materials, and curriculum gaps between education stages.

All of these are certainly problems that need addressing, but I would bet that even if we could solve these three issues tomorrow, the outcomes of the national language curriculum would fall below expectations.

Why?

It’s very simple: the two key elements for developing and maintaining bilingualism are not satisfied.

What are the two key elements: exposure and need.

To keep this post brief, I will only discuss the first of these two elements—exposure.

Exposure is the amount of time a person is in contact with a language.

According to the national curriculum guidelines, elementary and junior high school students will have one period per week of national language instruction, except in ninth grade, when there is a gap. Then, in high school, students will take two credits per semester, roughly equivalent to 36 hours of instruction.

So, is this enough exposure? I would argue no, not if you want to develop so-called independent users of the language.

To be considered an independent language user, you would need to reach a B1 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Every person develops language proficiency at a different pace based on various factors, but it is generally said that an average of 200 hours of consistent and quality instruction is required to move up one CEFR level.

Notice I said consistent and quality instruction. We will revisit why I said that in a moment. But first, let’s break down how many hours of national language instruction students will receive in their primary and secondary education.

In primary school, a class period is 40 minutes. An academic year has two 20-week semesters, so 40 minutes times 40 weeks equals 1,600 minutes, which is just over 26 hours. Multiply that by six years in primary school, and the cumulative hours is 160 hours.

If we are being generous, we could say students may be approaching a CEFR A1 level at the end of primary school. But, of course, this does not account for language loss during summer vacation. Remember, I said consistent instruction is required.

Let’s move to junior high, where periods are 45 minutes. Similarly, we have 40 weeks in the academic year times 45 minutes per week, which equals 1,800 minutes, or 30 hours. Now in junior high, the curriculum only calls for national language courses in grades seven and eight, not ninth grade, so our cumulative total is 220 at the end of eighth grade, which should be sufficient for most to reach a CEFR A1 level, assuming quality instruction, which the Taipei Times opinion piece has called into question.

But here comes the problem. That year-long gap in ninth grade likely brings students back to a pre-A1 level because people’s language proficiency recedes when the language is not used.

Now that students have entered high school, they will have to regain those losses and continue on their path to proficiency. In high school, students will receive an estimated 36 hours of instruction per semester, 72 hours per year. Multiply this by three years, and there is a total of 216 hours of instruction, sufficient for moving up one CEFR level, though, again, not accounting for summers.

If students enter high school somewhere below CEFR A1, then by the end of twelfth grade, the likelihood of them reaching the threshold for independent user, that is, CEFR B1, is slim. At best, I estimate the top students will leave high school with a CEFR A2 proficiency.

Therefore, if we actually care about raising the proficiency of national languages among students, they will need substantially more exposure to these languages. Unfortunately, the Taiwanese curriculum is already overloaded, so adding more periods dedicated to national languages is probably not feasible.

However, what potentially is feasible is encouraging all teachers, not just those teaching national languages, to find ways to incorporate these languages into their classes.

In other words, apply the principles of bilingual education to enhance exposure. Similar to how teachers are incorporating English alongside Mandarin in their classes as a result of the bilingual policy, there is similar opportunity to bring national languages into the mix.

Of course, this will require teachers to learn how to balance multiple languages in the classroom, which isn’t an easy task.

But it is trainable.

I think if we are already training future bilingual teachers to balance Mandarin and English, we can simultaneously encourage them to consider incorporating a national language as well to enhance the national languages curriculum.

In essence, we should not see the bilingual education policy and the national languages policy as two separate entities. We should approach them as a singular goal—promoting multilingualism in Taiwanese schools.